Last December, just before Christmas, Ace Hardware bought itself a most interesting holiday gift.  Long-time and noted co-op member Westlake Ace Hardware, founded in 1905, was acquired by Ace and became the first hardware stores actually owned by Ace.

Of course, this doesn’t count Ace’s ‘test kitchen’ experiment, back in the 90’s,  of opening a limited number of ‘corporate stores’ which were designed to serve essentially as a retail laboratory; locations where Ace corporate directly tested their latest merchandising, marketing and customer service initiatives.  Ace also used these venues to show off cutting edge concepts and promotions to interested parties ranging from prospective members, to new store owners, to the press, to foreign members and overseas prospects.  While visiting Ace locations in Mexico and Peru, I was most impressed as store owners raved as they detailed their visits to prominent Ace stores in the US.

The Ace corporate store experiment began in 1998 with six locations and ended in 2004 as the final twenty three stores left Ace direct corporate responsibility.  On acquiring the 85 store Westlake chain, Ace announced that Westlake would become a wholly-owned subsidiary.  Ace quickly stated that Westlake management would remain intact.  This produced widespread expectations that the uniqueness that was the Westlake chain for many years would at least be given a chance to continue to build its distinct brand.

Through the years Westlake Ace has been seen as a leading force from within the co-op.  Westlake executives were often invited to participate in national business forums and were pretty much a poster child for the Ace brand.  The company is well known for its knowledge of and sensitivity to the distinct communities it serves and its support of local activities as promoted by individual stores as well as by its corporate hierarchy.

Westlake is also famous for its ability to combine humor with local sensibilities for its creative promotions.  A Chain Store Guide Insight posted in late 2011, focused on a clever Westlake fake-news promotion, featuring local actors posing as zombies, which actually went viral on YouTube.   

Upon Ace Hardware’s unique acquisition of one of its preeminent members, many questioned who would really be in charge of the chain.  Would the traditional Westlake executive touch remain in control?  Or would Ace try to usurp power and decide much of the company’s future?

As of now, at a time still very early in the recently initiated parent/subsidiary relationship, it appears that the many who strongly hoped for Westlake’s long-term managerial mission to remain firmly in charge, will get their way.  Just two and a half months into the new relationship, Westlake has announced an innovative, unique new store design for one of its locations in Missouri.

The new concept is immediately apparent as per its distinctive signage and décor.  Groundbreaking features include an open-air entrance and welcoming, centrally located lifestyle displays.  The new design also includes the chain’s first garden center attached to the store.  This provides customers easy access while it protects them from the harsher elements of weather.  Energy efficiency is enhanced as natural light is welcomed by skylights and new-style doors.  The building’s exterior sports the natural building materials of wood and metal.  The shopping floor is polished concrete.

The company expects that this new concept will attract the many local customers who prefer the touch and feel of natural materials and elements.  As is to be expected from Westlake management, virtually an entire year was spent analyzing specific, local customer needs and sensibilities in order to develop an attractive, superior and comfortable shopping experience.  In determining the store’s design while incorporating the building materials to be used throughout, management’s objective was to offer a user-friendly, almost intuitive store presence, designed to meet the unique needs and appetites of local customers.   Here, Westlake management strongly feels that it has created a unique store environment for the more than century old chain.

Admittedly this design was planned by Westlake management, long before the acquisition became a fact.  But the strong national publicity initiative behind promoting this new design is clearly an attempt by both sides of the new management setup to show off the competency, strengths, vision and individuality of traditional Westlake hard work and community-based decision making.  This new store concept is likely to be used by Ace co-op management as a center-piece to show off its future look at store design.